Like the rest of the country, I awaited the release of the video footage from the Memphis Police Department with trepidation and concern. After watching a video released by the police chief and statements by others, I knew that whatever we were about to see wouldn’t be good.
I watched as the video was released on news media outlets and then I downloaded and watched again and again. As a former police captain, I always tried to put myself in the officer’s shoes as they responded to rapidly evolving circumstances when force became necessary.
It had been my job to make sure the policies and procedures were being adhered to. I can only imagine what must have been going through the minds of the command staff at the Memphis PD as they watched the video footage for the first time.
My guess is that in the early morning hours of January 8, the chief and her staff sat around a table, watching the body cam and surveillance video. They must have known right away it would not be business as usual in the coming days.
A message from the Memphis PD was released at 4:01 a.m. January 8 on Facebook, less than 24 hours after the incident occurred. The message informed the City of Memphis a suspect had been critically injured after being taken into custody and after contacting the District Attorney General’s Office the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would be taking over the investigation.
From January 8 through January 27, Chief CJ Davis, Memphis PD and the rest of the city worked with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney to put a case together.
On January 10, Tyre Nichols succumbed to the injuries he received during his arrest by officers of the Memphis PD, including members of the SCORPION unit.
On January 15, the City released a statement regarding the status of the investigation with strong statements of impending actions against the officers involved.
On January 20, Memphis PD notified the public that five officers had been terminated because of their actions during the arrest of Nichols.
On January 25, Memphis PD released a video from Chief Cerelyn Davis concerning Tyre Nichols.
When the video was released on January 27, despite efforts to prepare the public, the behavior of the officers was shocking. For the vast majority of law enforcement officers, what they saw was not only disturbing but disgusting. The feeling is, “Here we go again.”
Most officers are going about their jobs every day and acting professionally. But now they are once again caught up in collective guilt because of the actions of a few. The public reaction is not unexpected.
According to Chief Davis it is unclear what led to the actions of the officers prior to the beginning of the video. My guess is after the gravity of Nichols’ injuries became known, the officers lawyered up and didn’t give a statement.
The video begins with officers in unmarked units surrounding a vehicle and quickly opening the driver’s door and yanking the driver out. You just don’t run up to cars and yank people out unless there are extremely extenuating circumstances. We see it all the time on television during pursuits — when the suspect stops, you order him out of the car and have him walk back to you.
The officers’ lack of communication and poor use of technique as they took Nichols to the ground must be making the arrest control instructors from Memphis PD cringe. Then to spray pepper spray to gain compliance at close quarters was not a wise choice since the spray seemed to affect the officers more than Nichols. In a last desperate attempt to gain control they use a Taser.
In the next videos, when Nichols is located and they attempt to arrest him, we see the most disturbing actions of the officers. Again, the inability of the officers to communicate effectively and gain control was evident. The use of extensive profanity and threats only add to the perception of malice.
Officers don’t kick people in the head, punch them in the face, and baton them while they are being held by other officers. That is not just wrong, it’s criminal.
Afterwards, in conversations captured on the body cameras, we hear statements that Nichols “must be on something” and “he was going for my gun.” While toxicology hasn’t been released —not that it would make a difference —Nichols could have been under the influence of fear and adrenaline more than anything else. In my review of the videos, I didn’t see him reach for any officer’s guns or hear any officers saying he was reaching for their weapon.
I also did not hear about any supervision at the scene. You would think a first line supervisor would have immediately responded.
The concern now is, what is the response to such a horrendous event? Activists want radical change even up to disbanding the police, politicians want to legislate training and enhance laws to prosecute officers, and most of the public is questioning if there is something wrong with police culture in the United States.
Most of the more than 18,000 police agencies and over 800,000 police officers in the United States go to work every day without generating complaints, getting involved in use of force, or ending up on the evening news. For the most part, policing is working in the United States.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that we need to be aware of and address.
Officers in most jurisdictions are undergoing more training than they ever have; however, not all agencies are receiving the training they need. Of the over 18,000 police agencies in the United States, most have under 50 sworn officers. It is also important to ensure that once trained, the training standards are being adhered to.
The No. 1 risk manager at police agencies is the first line supervisor. Every agency must make sure there is an adequate span of control and supervision is taking place.
The screening and selection of police officers is still a priority. It isn’t easy to get hired today at most agencies. That doesn’t mean departments might have compromised standards to get people on the streets because of need.
Policies and procedures for most departments are standardized by risk managers and often state mandates. That doesn’t mean the policies and procedures are being followed and practiced. Regular audits and vigilance are a must.
The police are needed, especially in communities where victimization is high. Special units can be every effective at helping to make communities safer. However, they do need to be properly supervised and departments must remain vigilant. They must also work collaboratively alongside communities, so they don’t create the perception of an occupying army.
Significant changes have been made at almost every department in the United States over the last few years, with the end goal to improve the professionalism of policing and to ensure public trust. As the Memphis incident shows, trust can be fragile and agencies must constantly hold their people up to the high standards the public expects and deserves.